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How a diverse trio of Latter-day Saint chaplains from World War I remain relevant a century later

Herbert B. Maw. B.H. Roberts. Calvin S. Smith.

Latter-day Saint history buffs likely recognize those three names. 

Maw is best remembered as Utah’s eighth governor.

Elder Roberts was a general authority, an outspoken thinker and a prolific Church historian.

Smith was a son of Church’s sixth president, Joseph F. Smith, and a hero in his hometown newspapers.

Together, this diverse trio formed the corps of Latter-day Saint chaplains serving during World War I. Their duties included ministering to their fellow soldiers, offering spiritual courage and moral guidance. Each had unique experiences in uniform.

But even someone who can’t distinguish a private from a general can still learn gospel-centered lessons from three men who served their country and their faith during the so-called War To End All Wars.

Maw, Roberts and Smith served as U.S. Army chaplains over a century ago — but their examples remain timelessly relevant.

Ken Alford, a Church history professor at Brigham Young University and a retired U.S. Army colonel, highlighted the remarkable legacy of the Church’s World War I chaplains during the recent 2021 BYU Education Week.

When the United States declared war against Germany and its allies, the U.S. Department of the Army invited the Church to select three Latter-day Saint chaplains. The First Presidency accepted the invitation, choosing Maw, Roberts and Smith.

“These three men,” said Alford, “are wonderful examples who provide us with great lessons.”

Chaplain Herbert Maw’s lesson: Serve where called

The Church’s three army chaplains who served in World War I — Calvin S. Smith, Elder B.H. Roberts and Herbert Maw — were the subject of a 1919 article in the historic Church magazine “The Juvenile Instructor.”

The Church’s three army chaplains who served in World War I — Calvin S. Smith, Elder B.H. Roberts and Herbert Maw — were the subject of a 1919 article in the historic Church magazine “The Juvenile Instructor.”

Credit: Provided by Ken Alford

When war erupted, Maw was teaching high school in Salt Lake City.

In 1917, he volunteered for military duty with hopes of becoming a pilot in the Army’s fledgling aviation combat force. But days after finishing his first wave of training he received an unexpected phone call from President Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency.

The Church leader, who was a Maw family friend, extended a call to the chaplaincy.

According to Alford, Maw was flabbergasted. He was on the fast track to realizing his goal of piloting a plane. Serving as a chaplain was never in his plans. 

“But while on the phone with President Penrose, Maw said: ‘OK, President, if that is what the First Presidency and the Lord want, I will do it. I’m going to work and get my own confirmation, but I will say yes’.”

While on military leave in Salt Lake City prior to shipping off to Europe, young Chaplain Maw met with the First Presidency.

President Smith and his counselors placed their hands on his head, blessing him “with every protection, guidance and inspiration that a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ should have in war.”

Maw was assigned to the Army’s 89th Infantry Division, which included many soldiers who belonged to what was then called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known today as the Community of Christ. 

Initially, the RLDS soldiers were not happy to have a Latter-day Saint from Salt Lake City serving as their religious leader.

“But Maw tells the story in his autobiography that, over the ensuing months, he got to know them, and they got to know him,” said Alford. “And, Chaplain Maw said fences were mended on all sides. The soldiers recognized that he was a really good guy.”

Later, as Utah’s governor, Maw was known as a conciliator and a consensus builder.

Maw had planned to be a pilot. He never intended to be a military chaplain, and he was assigned to minister to soldiers who were initially leery of his Church affiliation. But he served where he was called.

He embraced the charge found in Doctrine and Covenants 107:99: “Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed in all diligence.”

Chaplain B.H. Roberts’ lesson: Participate fully

Latter-day Saint chaplain B.H. Roberts was a 60-year-old General Authority when he became a regular Army chaplain and was deployed in Europe.

Latter-day Saint chaplain B.H. Roberts was a 60-year-old General Authority when he became a regular Army chaplain and was deployed in Europe.

Credit: Provided by Ken Alford

Shortly before the war, Elder Roberts was commissioned as a major in the Utah National Guard by his friend and political ally, Utah Gov. Simon Bamberger. 

In that role, Elder Roberts was asked to help energize military recruitment in Utah. In his enthusiasm, he pledged to join the “sons of Utah” in the war trenches of Europe.

“The problem,” said Alford, “was that [Elder Roberts] was 60 years old.”

But true to his word, the storied Church leader convinced President Smith to select him as a Latter-day Saint chaplain. Following some skilled political maneuvering, military officials agreed to allow the sexagenarian into the regular Army if he accepted a demotion to lieutenant and successfully completed chaplain training — including the physical fitness requirements — with men decades younger.

No problem, said the member of the First Council of the Seventy.

Elder Roberts’ training camp commandant at Kentucky’s Camp Zachary Taylor reportedly did not share his enthusiasm. He summoned the aged lieutenant to his office, telling Roberts he would graduate him from the chaplains course if he agreed to keep a low profile and not participate in the daily training.

Lt. Roberts refused the waiver offer, insisting that he be held to the same standards as his fellow chaplain candidates.

To the surprise of many, “Roberts does not flunk out of chaplain training,” said Alford, ”and he was the highest-scored horseman in the entire camp.” 

Chaplain Roberts and his assigned unit arrived in France shortly before the armistice was signed, ending the war. He would later return to Utah and resume his ecclesiastical duties as a general authority

But during his training, the nontraditional chaplain chose to do hard things.

“Roberts participated fully,” said Alford. “He was offered an easy out, but he said, ‘No, I’m going to do it the right way’.” 

Elder Roberts embraced the challenge found in Doctrine and Covenants 92:2: “Be a lively member in this order; and inasmuch as you are faithful in keeping all former commandments you shall be blessed forever.”

Chaplain Calvin S. Smith’s lesson: Do more than what is required

 Latter-day Saint Army chaplain Calvin Smith was lauded for his courage and selfless ministering for World War I soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

Latter-day Saint Army chaplain Calvin Smith was lauded for his courage and selfless ministering for World War I soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

Credit: Provided by Ken Alford

When selecting the third chaplain, Calvin S. Smith, President Joseph F. Smith said selflessly, “I cannot call on others to do what I am not willing to do myself. We will send my son.”

Utah newspapers would dub the junior Smith “Utah’s Fighting Chaplain.”

“He saw action throughout the war,” said Alford. “He was part of one of the first divisions — the 91st Division — to see action in France. And they saw action over and over.” 

Smith was wounded several times and received several battlefield awards and decorations. He was nominated for a battlefield promotion for valor by his commander — a rarity for a chaplain. He also volunteered and served as a stretcher bearer, carrying wounded soldiers from the battlefield to safety.

He performed his duties, and then some.

Smith’s selflessness earned him the love of his comrades, and he became something of a superhero for Utah newspaper readers.

Smith was also a returned missionary. Prior to the war, he was called to share the gospel in Germany. He loved the German people and spoke the language fluently.

“Talk about being of two minds,” said Alford. “He returned to Europe as a chaplain — and our ‘sworn enemy’ was Germany, a people who he loved.” There were several times during the war when he was able to extend kindness to captured German soldiers.

As with Maw, the chaplaincy was not Smith’s first choice for military duty. For unclear reasons, he had previously not been medically cleared to serve as an infantry officer. So he accepted a chaplain’s appointment. As noncombatants, chaplains do not carry firearms, although they can serve in combat zones.

He began his training with little understanding of a chaplain’s duties beyond a few things he gleaned from a book.

Smith soon learned the work of a military chaplain wasn’t just in the realm of religion. It also meant “looking after such work as education, recreation, athletics, illness, mail and canteen [food] services,” Smith said.

He also corresponded with the relatives of the soldiers in his pastoral care, sometimes delivering somber news to homefront kin that their loved ones had died. He assisted with the burials of fallen American soldiers — and performed similar duties for German soldiers. 

“And then, later, those records were sent to the German army, allowing for reinterment of their soldiers as well,” said Alford.

Days after the war ended, Smith wrote to his father, President Joseph F. Smith. Unfortunately, the prophet died before receiving his son’s letter. But Calvin Smith’s written words are treasured by his descendants:

“I hope I come home from this war more of a man than I went into it. If I don’t, I’ll feel that I have not played my part.”

Chaplain Smith did much more than just “play his part,” said Alford. He willingly followed the admonition in Doctrine and Covenants 81:5 to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”

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